New York

Barbara Bloom

Jay Gorney Modern Art

It was that great master of manners and lover of women, David Salle, who, in a laconic text from 1977, compared Barbara Bloom’s practice to that of an ironically self-aware hostess, a perfect, gracefully accommodating hostess. Seductive in its civility, Bloom’s work has been championed for its clever innuendo and “twist of the knife” approach. Past efforts (particularly the excessive installation The Reign of Narcissism, 1989) combined a delicate conceptual rigor with the suffocating veneer of the 19th century in a complex critique of the signs of bourgeois femininity and the historical weight of class privilege. Yet within this critique, Bloom’s barbs were dulled by all the decor and tasteful appointments; the objects of her analysis revealed themselves as uncannily close to the actual objects of her desire. In The Tip of the Iceberg, 1991, Bloom pairs two forms of deep space—the ocean floor and outer space—to craft a metaphor (both intentional and unintentional) of waste and loss. In the main gallery, painted a deep nautical blue gray, stacks of hotel porcelain embossed with the words “R.M.S. Titanic” are arranged on a glass-topped table beneath a recessed cupola cut into the ceiling. The bottom of the dishes, reflected from below in a mirror, reveal photographic images from the floor of the ocean, an inventory of the dolls’ heads, crockery, and spittoons from the sunken ship. A series of objects left by careless astronauts to float in space—cameras, wrenches, gloves—decorate the illuminated cupola overhead.

Bloom pairs the drive to master deep space—conquests of both ocean and outer space—with her usual obsession with finery. Always subtle and arch (often cloyingly so), this work includes an official log book of space junk, a description of the Titanic disaster, and a list of stars that, for under 50 dollars, can be named and registered with the official-sounding International Star Registry. The exhibition’s namesake (Bloom dubbed her star the Tip of the Iceberg) has been registered, and its certificate hangs on the wall. Other works in the show, notably Olive Branch Brooch, 1991 (in editions of gold and gold-plated silver with slightly radioactive uraninite stone), scrutinize our symbolic cultural attempts to master the unknown; the astronaut’s grand gesture of peaceful colonization is here coyly reduced to jewelry. In keeping with this season’s fashion for sensitive “environmental critique,” Bloom’s exhibition uses excess and finery to evoke nostalgia for a controllable nature and to attack cultural disregard for objects lost to sight. And yet the tools of this operation—editions of champagne bottles or gorgeously boxed sets of porcelain—quickly lose any critical edge once they disappear into the domestic space of the class-conscious collector; they are simply dishes and bottles made into art by an act of nomination. A clever strategy of decoys, perhaps; nevertheless, Bloom’s critique of culture and commodity, via her own globe-trotting shopping spree, has become the dull edge of that (oft-cited) knife she’s so adept at twisting—an exercise in class worship and stifling decorum.

Tom Kalin